The Spirit Of The Beehive

****

Reviewed by: Rebecca Naughten

The Spirit Of The Beehive
"Although an undoubted classic of the period - and featuring one of cinema's best child performances in Torrent - the allusive and elusive style of the film is difficult to engage with."

As much a paean to the transformative and magical power of cinema as an introspective and opaque representation of Spain's grey post-war years, The Spirit of the Beehive (El Espíritu De La Colmena) is a key example of the metaphorical style of cinema utilised by Spanish filmmakers during the years of the dictatorship. Víctor Erice's directorial debut is heavy in symbolism and appropriately signals from the outset that it can also be taken as a kind of fable - the opening titles start, "Once upon a time..." and locate the film in a vague time and space "somewhere in central Spain, in around 1940".

The film focuses on a family in a small village in rural Spain - surrounded by flat, barren plains - as seen through the eyes of the family's youngest daughter, Ana (Ana Torrent). Early in the film Ana and her sister Isabel (Isabel Tellería) attend a screening of James Whale's Frankenstein - Erice's camera capturing Torrent's openmouthed and wide-eyed wonder at the Monster - and Whale's 1931 film will assert a lasting hold over how the impressionable young girl interprets the world around her. Ana is particularly concerned with the question of why the Monster killed the girl and the people killed the Monster - Isabel tells her that they're not really dead because movies are all trickery, and claims to have seen the Monster in spirit form nearby.

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This is part of Isabel's tormenting of her younger sister, who takes the older girl's stories at face value. After she is shown the deserted cottage where Isabel supposedly saw the Monster, Ana repeatedly returns there hoping to see him for herself... until one day she does. The audience knows that the silent man Ana encounters is a fugitive of some sort - we have seen him jump from a moving train - but she takes him to be her own Monster in need of care and attention. She brings him food and some of her father's clothes, oblivious to the danger she may be in or the trouble her actions could cause her family.

The world of adults is unknown and unknowable to young Ana. Her father Fernando (Fernando Fernán Gómez) is an introspective man - a beekeeper - whose distracted air seems out of place in this humble rural location, although perhaps the isolation is a deliberate choice. He and his wife Teresa (Teresa Gimpera) live separate lives within the same house - they are never shown in conversation, although both interact affectionately with their children - numbed by the still-recent war, with the inference that they may have been on the 'wrong' side.

Although uncommunicative with each other, both adults have occasional voiceover narration wherein we hear their private written thoughts, revealing additional information about them. Teresa writes letters - whether to a lover or a relative is unclear - addressed to someone care of the International Red Cross in France (i.e. someone in exile), while Fernando's writings utilise the beehive as a metaphor for the horror of a regimented order that has no use for frailty nor space for the individual. We hear him rewrite the same passage multiple times, as if he cannot satisfactorily express his thoughts - producer Elías Querejeta suggested that the film got past the censor because they didn't think anyone would understand it.

The beehive metaphor is used not only for a society under dictatorship but also the family home, which is bathed in a honeyed light - also implying emotional repression, with the characters stuck in stasis like insects in amber - caused by stained glass windows with a geometrical honeycomb pattern in both Fernando's study and Ana's bedroom. The family are but one component in a bigger structure.

Although an undoubted classic of the period - and featuring one of cinema's best child performances in Torrent - the allusive and elusive style of the film is difficult to engage with, and the passing of time adds another layer of obfuscation to a narrative that was already deliberately opaque so as to avoid censorship. It is nonetheless a beautiful film of quiet, understated visual poetry and well worth catching on the big screen if the opportunity presents itself.

Reviewed on: 17 Nov 2014
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The Spirit Of The Beehive packshot
A screening of James Whale's Frankenstein alters how an impressionable young girl sees her world in 1940s Spain.

Director: Víctor Erice

Writer: Víctor Erice, Víctor Erice, Ángel Fernández Santos, Ángel Fernández Santos, Francisco J. Querejeta

Starring: Fernando Fernán Gómez, Teresa Gimpera, Ana Torrent, Isabel Tellería, Ketty de la Cámara, Estanis González, José Villasante, Juan Margallo, Laly Soldevila, Miguel Picazo

Year: 1973

Runtime: 97 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: Spain

Festivals:

Leeds 2014

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